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St. Corona: Teaching Art History during a Global Pandemic

Alena Buis
snəw̓eyəɬ leləm̓-Langara College

In the middle of March, at the height of the novel coronavirus pandemic the internet was flooded with a convenient claim: “There is a St. Corona, and She is the Patron Saint against plagues and epidemics.”1 Since I am an art historian with a background in early modern visual culture, this caught my attention. According to several sources, not only was St. Corona associated with pandemics, but the remains of the second-century saint were thought to rest in a small town in Northern Italy not far from the epicenter of the European outbreak. I was curious as to how I could include St. Corona and her resurfacing amidst a global pandemic in my teaching going forward.

As recently pointed out by Candida Moss, a theologian at the University of Birmingham (UK), St. Corona turns out not to be the patron saint of pandemics. Nevertheless, she still provides an interesting case study for how the early modern world lends itself well to teaching online, highlighting key issues that connect to the global pandemic.2 The image of St. Corona and its adaptation over centuries can be an entry point to into many different themes including but not limited to artistic patronage, workshop practices, aesthetic principles, communal memory, and art as a focus for divine communication. This summer I am teaching the second half of the art history survey (Late Gothic to Modern) online. One of the learning outcomes is for students to be able to make connections between the images and objects viewed in class and their own contemporary visual culture. The recent (erroneous) headlines regarding St. Corona are a perfect way to introduce not only central concepts of late medieval art in Italy in a first-year art history survey course, but also imitate conversations around the visual culture of the pandemic more broadly.3 Though little is known of her life and history, St. Corona leaves behind a fascinating visual and material culture, much of which is available electronically from the comfort of our own self-quarantine: for example, Illuminated miniature of the martyrdom of Saint Victor and Saint Corona (fig. 1) on a full leaf from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), ca. 1480. Remote learning due to the novel coronavirus has disrupted the traditional classroom in ways that have inspired me to try new assignments that engage art history students learning remotely.

Fig. 1. Illuminated miniature of the martyrdom of Saint Victor and Saint Corona on a full leaf from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1480.

In particular, the Master of Palazzo Venezia Madonna’s St. Corona (fig. 2, ca. 1350) now in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, Denmark provides a rich entry point into a discussion of altarpieces and how the Black Plague (1346–53) impacted artistic production in places like Siena. The nearly life-sized tempera and gold ground panel depicts the young saint standing gracefully, her blue and rose mantle draping generously over her gold-patterned dress and around her slight body. Corona as her name suggests, is shown wearing a small fleuronné crown while elegantly holding his larger version in her left hand. This is a reference to a vision she had in which an angel descended from the heavens offering her two crowns, a modest one for herself and a more elaborate one for St. Vittorio a Roman soldier, possibly her husband with whom she would be martyred.4

Fig. 2. Master of Palazzo Venezia Madonna’s St. Corona (c. 1350) now in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

In a short synchronous virtual meeting with students I used the Master of Palazzo Venezia Madonna’s St. Corona (ca. 1350) as an opportunity to model how to discuss the form, content, and context of an art work for students.5 Possibly painted by a follower of Simone Martini best known for his Virgin and Child in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, St. Corona and the accompanying St. Victor of Siena (ca. 1350) are rare examples of the linear and colorful decorative style of Sienese Gothic (fig. 3). The pair are thought to be part of the St. Victor Altarpiece, to the right of the high altar at Siena Cathedral. They each would have flanked Bartolomeo Bulgarini’s Adoration of the Shepherds (ca. 1350) now in the Fogg Museum (fig. 4).6 As Judith Steinhoff, convincingly argues in her article “Artistic working relationships after the Black Death: A Sienese ‘Compagnia,’ c. 1350–1363(?)” “the critical influences on Sienese painting of the 1350s and 1360s were the economic and demographic upheavals the plague engendered.”7 In this lesson I emphasized that despite the current misconception of her being the patron saint of pandemics, it is significant that this work was produced during a time when a widespread pandemic was impacting the harmony of medieval Europe’s diverse cities.8 As Moss, explains, not only is saint veneration locally specific, their histories are dynamic: “Saintly traditions have always grown and developed over time as people call upon local saints for assistance in situations of crisis.”9 St. Corona thus becomes an example of how social and religious practices adapt and change, and how visual and material culture reflects these shifts. To emphasize these changes in visual and material culture I also designed other learning activities to expand on my introduction and engage the students in actively exploring St. Corona imagery. By leveraging the Lightbox function of Moodle for image sharing, I asked students to find other depictions of the saint, formally analyze these works and trace how she has been adapted.

Fig. 3. Master of Palazzo Venezia Madonna’s St. Victor of Siena (c. 1350) now in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Fig. 4. Bartolomeo Bulgarini’s Adoration of the Shepherds (ca. 1350) now in the Fogg Museum

I further expanded on these concepts by giving students the option for one of their writing assignments to make connections between the art historical content and their own lives, even their own experience of the pandemic. Students could further be asked to consider contemporary efforts to “visualize” the spread of the coronavirus or its impact among communities and populations that are typically marginalized.10 In an asynchronous discussion forum I asked them to contemplate the fact that this image on our screen was once a side panel for an iconographic program centered in the Virgin in a Sienese chapel and one that can no longer be experienced in its original setting. This provided an opportunity for them to think about different perspectives on artistic works, viewing pieces from the margins or in different settings, “meaning” of art especially in the digital age. Only on our computer screens can St. Corona, St. Victor of Siena, and The Adoration of the Shepherds be seen again in one convenient location.

As part of a larger altarpiece made shortly after the Black Death swept early modern Europe, the St. Corona and St. Victor of Siena panels tie in nicely to key themes used to introduce the period by Smarthistory. The “Beginner’s Guide” to Italy in the 14th Century, describes the era as seeing “beautiful gold-filled paintings, but also the horror of the Black Death.” Three short essays introduce Late Gothic art with a focus on “The Medieval and Renaissance Altarpiece,” by Donna L. Sadler and “The Black Death” by Louisa Woodville. Also included is a wonderful short TED-ED clip “Distorting the Madonna in Medieval art,” and a technical examination of “Gold-ground panel painting” produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum.11 While these resources had long been a valuable addition to the classroom, the availability of online resources accessible to remote learners became a necessity in online-learning overnight.

Co-founded by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, with the belief that “art has the power to transform lives and build understanding across cultures,” Smarthistory is one of the leading open educational resources (OER) for art history.12 OER are teaching, learning, and research resources in the public domain or released under an open license that allow others to re-purpose and use them freely. These materials include textbooks, readings, multimedia files, software, assessments, and even entire courses. Low or no cost, they are perfect for students on a budget, and can be convenient for professors making last minute changes to class resources. Open educational resources and the open educational pedagogies they enable have contributed to a much smoother pivot to online learning when the pandemic forced our college to end face-to-face classes.13 Because they are openly licensed, they can be easily compiled by instructors and provided to students for use in remote learning.14

The two images of St. Corona and St. Victor of Siena by the Master of Palazzo Venezia Madonna and Bartolomeo Bulgarini’s Adoration of the Shepherds are also made easily accessible through Google Arts & Culture, another example of an open access digital platform. The collection includes over 30,000 images and 45,000 high resolution views of objects from over 2,500 museums and galleries, with 60 available in Street View. Google Arts & Culture has the potential to provide immersive explorations of virtual exhibitions, up close and personal access to works of art, and exclusive access otherwise unavailable to the vast majority of teachers and students. Using these technologies students can even view key works, historical sites, or specific locations highlighted in the survey course in situ. With digital scavenger hunts, walking tours, and creative close looking assignments, students can virtually explore places around the world otherwise inaccessible to them. These benefits of have been accentuated during the novel coronavirus pandemic. As we have been forced to stay home, digital connections have become more important.

The sudden pivot to online teaching and learning has further inspired me to be more creative with assessments in the courses I am teaching this summer. One assignment, called the “Art in Quarantine Challenge,” asks students to recreate works of art from the syllabus using themselves and objects from their own homes. This activity is similar to the social media phenomenon first started by the “Tussen Kunst und Quarantaine” (Dutch for “Between Art and Quarantine”) Instagram account and later taken up by other institutions. Since most museums and galleries have closed due to the pandemic, these images form what Katy Kelleher calls in a New York Times article on the challenge, “a living archive of creativity in isolation.”15 Such recreations have been a creative and emotional outlet for many, bringing artistic communities together during the pandemic crisis. Curators, professors, students, we are all adapting to volatile and uncertain times.16 This assignment forces learners to consider artistic concepts like form and composition while practicing close looking and fostering community among learners as they share their recreations. Although I have used similar assignments in face-to-face classes, this exercise becomes particularly salient for students learning online as this contemporary moment dictates from self-isolation. Early feedback from learners is overwhelmingly positive. One student wrote “As an artist myself, I enjoyed learning about the technical creation and application that was required” by the assignment. Another wrote, “The Art in Quarantine [activity] was very fun to do and got me to think creatively again.” (fig. 5)

Fig. 5. Wenli Yang, Recreation of Johannes Vermeer’s A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (2020)

St. Corona is relevant to teaching and learning during a global pandemic, but not for obvious reasons. As a case study she serves as a reminder of the importance of visual literacy, close looking, and critical thinking—all skills developed in the study of art and its histories. In her examination of post-plague Siena, Steinhoff identifies campagnia loosely structured collaborations that helped artists “weather both the perceived uncertainties and the actual economic instability of the period.”17 During our own corona virus pandemic, OER, and other digital tools have supported online teaching and learning in re-imagining communities while quarantined at home in unprecedented times.

Alena Buis is Chair of the Department of Art History and Religious Studies at snəw̓eyəɬ leləm̓-Langara College in Vancouver, British Columbia and Instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, British Columbia. Her recent research focuses on the scholarship of teaching and learning for art history (So-TLA) and she is one of the founders of Open Art Histories (OAH) a platform for art, art history, visual art, and museum studies teachers and instructors in Canada.

1 “There Is a Saint Corona, And She Is the Patron Saint against Plague and Epidemics,” Society of Saint Pius X, District of Canada, 13 March 2020.

3 For more on street art specifically, see CBC, “Pandemic-Inspired Street Art in Canada and Around the World,” 9 May 2020.

5 Robert J. Belton, Sights of Resistance: Approaches to Canadian Visual Culture (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2001): 8–15.

6 For more on these two panels see Elizabeth H. Beatson, Norman E. Muller, and Judith B. Steinhoff, “The St. Victor Altarpiece in Siena Cathedral: A Reconstruction,” The Art Bulletin 68, no. 4 (December 1986): 610–31.

7 Judith Steinhoff, “Artistic Working Relationships after the Black Death: A Sienese ‘Compagnia’, c. 1350–1363(?),” Renaissance Studies 14, no. 1 (March 2000): 7.

9 Matthew Taub, “Is Saint Corona a Guardian Against Epidemics?” Atlas Obscura, 31 March 2020.

10 I am very grateful for the thoughtful feedback from two reviewers and their suggestions for similar discussion prompts.

11 “Italy: 14th century,” Smarthistory, 5 June 2020.

12 Sebastian Smee, “How Two Professors Transformed the Teaching of Art History,” Washington Post, 1 May 2020.

13 Rajiv Jhangiani and Robin DeRosa, Open Pedagogy Notebook: Sharing Practices, Building Community.

14 “Understanding OER in a Context That Necessitates Remote Learning: OER Africa,” Understanding OER in a Context that Necessitates Remote Learning | OER Africa.

15 Katy Kelleher, “Art Recreation is the Only Good Instagram Challenge,” The New York Times, 17 April 2020.

16 Rebecca Kahn, “Corona as Curator: How Museums Are Responding to the Pandemic,” Elephant in the Lab, 15 April 2020.

17 Steinhoff, “Artistic working relationships after the Black Death: a Sienese ‘compagnia’, c. 1350–1363(?),” 7.

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